Warning: Mild spoilers! If you haven't read the book, you may not want to continue.
In The Cider House Rules, John Irving discusses the notion of "playing God," or interfering with nature and creation. Dr. Wilber Larch, resident obstetrician and abortionist at the orphanage in St. Cloud's, Maine, spent his life playing God: he performed abortions, interfering with the creation of a new life; and he revised the history of St. Cloud's, deleting people and events that existed and creating people and conditions that never did, in an effort to improve the world around him. Through the character of Dr. Larch, Irving suggests that it is morally acceptable to play God and take the lives of other human beings out of the hands of chance.
Larch the Abortionist
Dr. Larch's role as an abortionist was the clearest example of his tendancy to play God. Throughout his career, Larch regularly, consciously, and deliberately terminated the development of hundreds of fetuses
and all the potential
for life therein. If one takes the view of Larch's contemporaries, that babies are the handiwork of God, then by performing abortions Larch directly interfered with divine creation
and took the responsibility
of determining whether or not a life will begin upon himself.
Wilbur Larch, and through him, John Irving, argued that playing God in this manner is morally permissible and a way to right some of the wrongs of the world. Larch "was an obstetrician; he delivered babies into the world. His colleagues called this 'the Lord's work.' And he was an abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this 'the Devil's work,' but it was all the Lord's work to Wilbur Larch." Larch felt that "the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born;" he felt more of an obligation to the living women carrying unwanted children, victims of rape or incest or intolerable poverty who would avoid bringing the children to term by any means possible, than to the fetuses in their wombs.
Larch the Revisionist Historian
Larch played God more subtly by assuming the role of revisionist historian at St. Cloud's. At St. Cloud's, "no records were kept of the orphans' actual mothers and fathers. An orphan's history began with its date of birth." Larch erased evidence
of the orphans' biological origins
for what he felt was the orphans' own good: "How does it help anyone to look forward to the past
? How are orphans served by having their past to look ahead to? Orphans, especially, must look ahead to their future
s." Melony, an orphan who wanted to find her birthmother
, felt that by doing this Larch was "playing God--he gives you your history, or he takes it away! If that's not playing God, what is?"
Larch also rewrote aspects of the histories of two orphans, Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone, to suit his own purposes. Homer Wells was never adopted, and when Larch took him on as an apprentice, he came to see him not only as Galatea to his Pygmalion but also as a son. On the brink of World War II, when Homer was about 20 years old, Larch modified Homer's history to include a congenital heart defect, slight enough to allow him to live a normal life but significant enough to keep him out of war. "'I'm sorry, Homer,' Larch imagined himself having to tell the boy. 'I don't want you to worry, but you have a bad heart; it just wouldn't stand up to a war.' What Larch meant was that his own heart would never stand up to Homer Wells's going to war. The love of Wilbur Larch for Homer Wells extended even to his tampering with history." In the case of Homer Wells, Larch played God by creating a natural condition where none existed, and thereby forcing Homer's fate in a direction it may not otherwise have gone.
Fuzzy Stone was an orphan with severe respiratory problems that eventually cost him his life. Years later, faced with a board of trustees with a zealous desire to replace the aging obstetrician and secret abortionist, Dr. Larch deleted the record of Fuzzy's death and created him anew as the perfect replacement for Dr. Larch. He fabricated transcripts for Fuzzy at Bowdoin College and Harvard Medical School and wrote phony letters from "Dr. Stone" to Dr. Larch, in which iw was established that Dr. Stone was emphatically not in favor of abortions. "Wilbur Larch had created a replacement for himself, one who would be acceptable to the authorities...He had also created a perfect lie, because the Dr. Stone whom Wilbur Larch had in mind would perform abortions, of course, while at the same time--what could be better?--he would be on record for claiming he was against performing them. When Larch retired...he would already have available his most perfect replacement." The person Dr. Larch had in mind to play the part of Dr. F. Stone was Homer Wells, who, under the alias of Dr. Stone, would not need to attend medical school, and who, Larch supposed, would continue the St. Cloud's tradition of performing abortions. In effect, Larch gave birth to Dr. Fuzzy Stone, creating a life and a history that had never taken place. With respect to Fuzzy, Larch assumed the God-like role of creator.
Again, Irving uses Larch to assure the reader that playing God through revisionist history is an acceptable means of acheiving good ends. Larch wrote in his massive (and inaccurately titled) A Brief History of St. Cloud's, "Here in St. Cloud's...I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for these moments when it is possible to play God--we should sieze those moments. There won't be many." Larch believed that it is every individual's responsibility to take control of events, when the opportunity to do so presents itself, and to shape the world according to what he or she believes is right. To put it another way, Larch believed in creating order from chaos. Larch's sole motivation in tampering with history was to make life better for himself, Homer Wells, and the orphans and mothers he was responsible for, and on the whole, he was successful. Larch took control of the circumstances he was placed in in an effort to improve the world; through him, Irving encourages the reader to do the same.
Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. Ballantine Publishing Group: New York, 1985.